Did reasonable doubt fail Reeva Steenkamp?

I’ve been debating with myself for the last few months whether to write a piece similar to this, and over the last few days on whether to actually publish this very blog. I have tried to be mindful about getting this right or will it just be another example of a man not getting it and being complicit in the abuse women have to suffer. I guess I have to leave that judgement up to you.

The last couple of days have been mostly focused on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, as the verdicts on the charges of murdering Reeva Steenkamp were delivered by Judge Thokozile Masipa. Oscar Pistorius was cleared of murder but found guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter). Essentially, it was ruled he did not set out to kill Reeva Steenkamp that night but his actions caused her death. Given the surrounding accusations that Reeva Steenkamp was afraid of him, there has been rightly a lot of focus on women and patriarchy and how women are regarded; not just in South Africa but in around the world. The fact he was cleared of murder has been met by some as suggesting Reeva Steenkamp didn’t matter and that the perpetrator is once again being protected. Let me be clear; patriarchy, misogyny, sexism are all very real and result in women being abused and men justifying that abuse. But in this court case, Reeva Steenkamp has not been failed by the patriarchy system, she has been failed by reasonable doubt.

The whole case has been tried within the very well established practice that the accused is innocent until they are proven guilty. In the words of Judge Masipa; “The onus is not on the accused to prove that he’s innocent but on the state to prove that he’s guilty” With many attacks on women, it is done in private with no witnesses and often the accusations come down to “the mans word versus hers”. The patriarchy would say that the woman did something to provoke the man therefore deserved it. The legal system would say “we need more than just your word”. The woman can’t win either way. There is no justification, regardless of whether the victim is a man or a woman, for beating someone. Sadly, the testimonies of women show a clear picture that the police don’t always seem to take accusations from women that seriously and ask questions to suggest that she did something to provoke him. The cases very rarely get to court.

Oscar Pistorius was in court though to face charges of murder, culpable homicide and other gun related charges. It was never in doubt that Oscar Pistorius shot his gun at the bathroom door and as a result of her injuries sustained from those gunshots, Reeva Steenkamp died. The question that the court had to decide on was did Oscar Pistorius deliberately shoot Reeva Steenkamp through the bathroom door knowing it was her and intended to kill her, or was it an accident where Pistorius believed it was an intruder which is the explanation he gave.  According to the CPS website:

Subject to three exceptions (see Voluntary Manslaughter below) the crime of murder is committed, where a person:

  • of sound mind and discretion (i.e. sane); 
  • unlawfully kills (i.e. not self-defence or other justified killing);
  • any reasonable creature (human being);
  • in being (born alive and breathing through its own lungs – Rance v Mid-Downs Health Authority (1991) 1 All ER 801 and AG Ref No 3 of 1994 (1997) 3 All ER 936;
  • under the Queen’s Peace;
  • with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). [1]

As is his legal right, he had a hearing in front of a judge to make the decision on whether his actions fell into the above. For it to be deemed murder in the legal sense, it has to be premeditated. If he did not intend to kill her, then he cannot be found guilty of murder. As I stated above, it was down to the prosecution to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” it was deliberate. Pistorius did not have to prove his version of events to the court. How though do you prove beyond reasonable doubt that an act that was deliberate when the only 2 witnesses involved were the accused and the woman that he shot and killed? It seemed proving premeditation was always going to be difficult. And so it proved. Whilst delivering her judgement,  Judge Masipa says “the state failed to prove its allegation that Oscar Pistorius deliberately murdered his girlfriend after an argument, providing…. only circumstantial evidence which was not strong. …..his actions were not consistent with someone who intended to commit murder.”  There is outcry at the decision, many see it as another case of a mans word being taken over a womans yet again and there are experts who believe the judge came to the wrong decision etc. But I see it as Reeva Steenkamp being failed by the way the legal system is set up. We want to believe the victims, we want to side with them, we want them to get justice. We can voice our views freely and rally around them. Judges don’t have that luxury and that is not what they are there to. They are there to listen to the case, listen to the arguments, determine the facts, look at what the law says then make a decision. As former judge Willem Heath put it:

[Many] lawyers think that she missed the point, that she did not interpret the law correctly, that she did not analyse the facts correctly, but when you consider the judgement, it is evident from that that she considered the facts, that she considered the law, and that’s all that she’s required to do. There’s a lot of criticism, they thought she should have convicted the accused of murder, therefore there’s a lot of unhappiness. But I’m of the view that that’s really subjective. If the lawyers would apply their minds as they’re supposed to do, they should analyse the circumstances and find themselves in the same position she found herself in,”

Pierre de Vos, Cape Town University law professor tweeted: “The law is not an exact science. Reasonable people can disagree on how it should be applied in a case” and legal experts (and non legal experts) will debate this endlessly I suspect. It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and theorize what we would do if we were the judge.  I think my friend may be being a bit harsh when he posted “From what I’ve gathered the main problem was Pistorius being judged not guilty in a court of law, rather than guilty by the mob rule expressed on Facebook. I didn’t realise the good people on here were such experts in the fine detail of South African trial law…” but I think he’s right; we can judge using our emotions, law judges can’t. Oscar Pistroius still faces a potentially lengthy prison sentence for being found guilty on the (admittedly lesser) charge of culpable homicide, so I can’t buy into the argument that him being found not guilty of murder shows that women don’t matter. Not guilty doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent, just that there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty.

When it comes to cases that reach court though, I’m not sure what the options are. Less than 1% of rape and abuse claims have been shown to be made up so the odds of a woman lying about it is extremely remote so do we re-define what reasonable doubt means? Do we push the emphasis onto the defendant to prove their innocence? Whilst mindful of the slippery slope fallacy, I don’t like where those would potentially lead.  We may not like it but people being accused of things are entitled to a fair hearing, where their version is heard and all the evidence is brought together to be ruled on by a legal expert or before a jury of their peers. As I put above, there is often not much additional evidence beyond the victims word. Is declaring someone guilty, and all the consequences that come with that, solely on the word of their accuser and dishing out punishment where we want to head?

The conclusion of this case has left us exactly where we started really. Women are still being beaten, abused and killed because they are women; men and women are told they must act in a certain way in order to be a man and a woman and are bullied (or worse) if they do not conform to society’s demands. All the while society doesn’t see anything wrong in that because it has always happened. There is a massive re-education project that needs to happen to get society to open its eyes and do something about it. Whilst excuses are made, nothing will change and waiting for these instances of abuse to reach court is far too late. We need to do more than reduce abuse cases by putting abusers in jail, we need to change everything about the way women are seen and treated, and the way men feel they have to act in order to be men.

I get the anger at the decision, I get the comparisons to defenses men have made to justify their actions when abusing women; but I’m also a big believer in judging each case on its merits. Reeva Steenkamp was failed because the prosecution was not able show beyond reasonable doubt on premeditation which they were required to do under the eyes of the law. Judge Masipa did not rule that Reeva Steenkamp caused it to happen, the blame lies squarely at the feet of Oscar Pistorius.

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